A Confession?

I did not go to church yesterday morning. I was up somewhat late Saturday night, overslept, and didn’t get up in time to make it to church. I did, however, attend church in the afternoon—more about that a little later. As it was, however, I got to watch a few religious broadcasts on TV, including: The Hour of Power (with Bobby Schuller), Context (with Lorna Dueck), Joel Osteen (with Joel Osteen [duh!], and The Living Truth (with Charles Price). It was quite an interesting hodge-podge.

While I don’t get to watch it that often, I have been pleasantly surprised with Bobby Schuller’s preaching on The Hour of Power. Aside from some quibbles here and there, I have found his sermonic content to be quite good, and, for the most part, quite sound. He is certainly more biblical in his preaching than was the case with his grandfather. Yesterday morning, however, I was struck with, and somewhat disappointed by, a particular “confession” that Schuller has evidently begun to have the congregation repeat every Sunday. Here’s the “confession”:

“I’m not what I do. I’m not what I have. I’m not what people say about me. I am the beloved of God. It’s who I am. No one can take it from me. I don’t have to worry. I don’t have to hurry. I can trust my friend Jesus and share his love with the world.”

Now, there’s nothing particularly or necessarily wrong with anything in this “confession” (“necessarily” is a key word here”); nevertheless it is problematic in at least two respects:

First, the use of the word “confession” for this statement is not really appropriate. Historically and traditionally, the Christian church has used the word “confession,” at least in church services, in regard to two things. It is used with regard to affirmations of faith regarding the words, deeds, and character of God. It is used to refer to our liturgical acts of declaring what God has done and what God is like, such as may be found in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. The second way in which the word has traditionally been used is with regard to the “confession of sins.” In more Reformed and liturgical churches, the word applies to that part of the service in which the congregation confesses its sins and then receives, from the word of God, the assurance of pardon. Both of these confessions can and do happen in the same service. We confess the faith, and we confess our sins. As one hymn-writer, Elizabeth Clephane, put it in her well-known hymn, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” (but worded differently in various hymnals):

Two wonders I confess:
The wonder of his matchless love,
and my own worthlessness.

Second, there is a certain egocentric element to this “confession.” Notice the “I”-ness of this confession, as evidenced by the initial words of each line:

I’m not . . .
I’m not . . .
I’m not . . .
I am . . .
It’s who I am . . .
I don’t have to . . .
I don’t have to . . .
I can . . .

Now, to be sure, it’s very easy to fall into the rut of using the word, “I” too much. Indeed, check out the first paragraph of this article and you’ll find it used way too much! The use of this word can hardly be avoided. But there should be a concentrated effort to avoid overuse of it in a “confession.” Confessions in church services are to be about the greatness of God and/or the sinfulness of our sin. Confessions should not be used with regard to our own statuses or to good things about us, even if those good things are acknowledged to come from God. Statements about what we are or what we are not should not be raised to the level of “confessional,” liturgical status. To raise statements about our status to a confessional level is to enter what could be dangerous territory. And this is true for two reasons.

First, these statements might not actually be true. Perhaps “what I do,” or “what I have”—perhaps there really is a problem with what I do or what I have, and then this statement simply becomes a denial of reality. Perhaps part of my problem is that I am ignoring “what people say about me,” and I should actually listen more closely to what brothers and sisters in Christ are calling to my attention. Perhaps there are indeed things about which I should be worried, or situations in which I should be hurrying. A “confession” like this can too easily lead to a denial of the way things are, and actually cut off our progress in the faith.

Second, statements like this can all too easily lead to a “cheap grace,” an inordinate pride, a kind of triumphalism that declares that victory is ours no matter what we do. This flies in the face of Amos’s warning about those who are “at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1), or Jeremiah’s warning about those who would cry, “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer 7:4), thinking themselves to be invincible, to be God’s favorites, and therefore incapable of falling. It is, in fact, this triumphalism, this “power of positive thinking,” which, in my opinion, contributed to both the rise and the fall of the Crystal Cathedral.

Now, when I heard this confession, I was immediately reminded of something that occurs as part of the “liturgy” in every Joel Osteen broadcast. The first part of the liturgy is the joke that Osteen always uses to open the show with. And then, second, there is the “confession,” or whatever Osteen calls it (there are several versions of this; Osteen used the shorter version on this particular program; I have given the longer version below):

This is my Bible.
I am what it says I am.
I have what it says I have.
I can do what it says I can do.
Today, I will be taught the Word of God.
I boldly confess:
My mind is alert, My heart is receptive.
I will never be the same.
I am about to receive
The incorruptible, indestructible,
Ever-living seed of the Word of God.
I will never be the same.
Never, never, never.
I will never be the same.
In Jesus name. Amen.

Again, notice the “I”s:

I am . . . I am . . .
I have . . .I have . . .
I can do . . .I can do . . .
I will be taught . . .
I boldly confess . . .
I will . . .
I am . . .
I will . . .
I will . . .

Aside from any comparison the reader might draw between this “confession” and some “I will” statements that occur in Isaiah 14:13-14 (though Osteen only has four of them rather than five), and aside from the fact that this “confession” is demonstrably false (if for no other reason than the line which says, “Today, I will be taught the word of God”), it is important to call attention to the very egocentric and anthropocentric, rather than theocentric or christocentric, nature of this “confession.” Again, confessions are either about the greatness of God or the sinfulness of our sin; they are not about us, who we are, what we can do, what we are not going to do, or about our great resolve to do something by boldly and repeatedly saying “I will.”

There are two more related things I should say about the Osteen program. First, yesterday’s sermon was about our failure to ask God for his “second touch.” Just like the blind man who needed a “second touch” from Jesus in order to get what he really wanted, full rather than simply partial recovery of his sight, so we sometimes need a “second touch” from God. Sometimes we ask God for things, and he answers us; but we’re still struggling, we’re still in financial difficulty, we still haven’t quite got the actual promotion we’re hoping for, we still have cancer, etc. Well, that’s our fault, because we should have asked God for the “second touch,” so we can be completely out of debt, rolling in dough, doing exactly the job we wanted to do, and completely cured of our cancer. Do you see what our problem is here? The problem is that we have failed to really believe that confessional statement. We have failed to be everything the word of God says “I am,” to have what it says “I have,” to do what it says “I can do.” We have failed to boldly and confidently say, “I will, I will, I will, I will.”

Second, interestingly, Osteen has a book which he would like everyone to order (surprise, surprise). This book is in addition to his other egocentric, anthropocentric volumes. The title of this book is—this is just too, too—“I Am”! The book gives the readers a series of “I am statements,” which they can daily remind themselves of. What are these “I am” statements? Well, here are a few of them:

I am talented
I am healthy
I am strong
I am prosperous
I am disciplined
I am focused
I am attractive
I am getting younger
I am radiant
I am amazing

A book entitled, I Am. Are you thinking what I am thinking? What a marvelous opportunity to talk about those great “I am” statements of Jesus in the gospel of John:

I am the bread of life.
I am the light of the world.
I am the gate for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I am the true vine.

And then, of course, there are those places where Jesus simply said, “I am,” identifying himself as Yahweh, the Great I Am. Yet, Osteen fails terribly here, and prefers to talk about what we are, rather than what Christ is. But this is exactly what happens in a church or a ministry where the main liturgical statement is human-centered rather than God-centered and Christ-centered.

Thankfully, there were great contrasts to these programs yesterday as well. The episode on Context was entitled, “The Gift of Life,” and was about euthanasia. It was a very moving program. Part of this episode focused on Lorna Dueck’s sister-in-law, Margaret, and her battle with Muscular System Atrophy, which has taken away most of her muscular ability, including her ability to communicate by means of her vocal chords. She and her family, nevertheless, have a vibrant faith in God, though, evidently, Osteen would fault them for not praying hard enough for that “second touch.” Here is a link where you may watch this episode. Pay particular attention to “Lorna’s Wrap” at the end of the program, which is both moving and eloquent.

I also watched The Living Truth with Charles Price. Interestingly, for part of the sermon yesterday, Price dealt with two of those “I am” statements of Jesus in the gospel of John.

And, then, yesterday afternoon, I attended a church service at Hallelujah Christian Fellowship, a Korean Presbyterian church, where my good friend, Jin Chong, is the pastor. In addition to preaching a very fine sermon from Ephesians 3, he also led the congregation in a confession—a confession of sin, that is, and one that was very eloquent and thoughtfully put together.

As I said before, I think Bobby Schuller is a fine preacher. He is a great communicator, has a winsome personality, and certainly appears to be a humble and even self-deprecating person. And, though I do not know how often, I do know that they recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds at the church. I think what is happening at Shepherd’s Grove right now gives evidence of being both a chastened and more biblical ministry. And I would consider the ministries of Shepherd’s Grove and that of Joel Osteen to be light years apart. But though they are so far apart, they both, at least historically, belong in some respects to the same genre. There is this “power of positive thinking” concept that puts them on the same continuum; and these power-of-positive-thinking ministries tend to more human-centered than God- and Christ-centered. And though I do think Shepherd’s Grove is a more chastened and biblically-oriented version of the former Crystal Cathedral, the “confession” that I have called attention to in this article, I think, gives evidence that there is still this residual attitude that needs to be guarded against.

At the same time, perhaps that is true for all of us. Indeed, our default setting is idolatry along with an unhealthy measure of narcissism. And my point in this article is that we should not be doing things in our worship services that would serve to reinforce this default setting. Let us, instead, make sure that in our worship services we confess both the greatness of our God, as well as the exceeding sinfulness of our sin. And let us steer clear of liturgical moves where we talk about ourselves, and in the process end up actually denying the reality about ourselves, marching happily down the road toward a prideful triumphalism.

Not to us, LORD, not to us
but to your name be the glory,
because of your love and faithfulness. (Psalm 115:1)

Jerry Shepherd
August 31, 2015